It is always a bold decision to attempt a play as infamous as Equus. Beyond its association to Daniel Radcliffe’s onstage nudity, this story of psychiatrist Dr Martin Dysart’s investigation into the case of Alan Strang, a 17-year-old responsible for blinding six horses in a stable, is notorious for its demanding script and the challenging combination of storytelling, detective work, philosophical questioning and choreography it involves. Director Alexander Gillespie’s recent production at the Byre Theatre, however, made dealing with these challenges seem effortless, and provided a deftly controlled and powerful rendition of this haunting play.
The audience was greeted by the slow thumping of moody, bass-heavy music, and actors pre-set around the sparsely furnished Byre stage: a diamond of wooden pallets in the centre of the space, bordered by three white wooden benches, and accompanied by a small writing desk upstage left and a cot downstage right. According to a press preview, this vision was chosen in order to allow audience-members to imagine settings rather than present a concrete image of a place before them. This clever choice added not only a dream-like dimension to the show, but also a significant degree of flexibility, thus enabling the cast to seamlessly transition from one scene to the next.
Technical work was equally well-managed. Almost like Martin Scorsese’s tracking shot in Goodfellas, technician Elliot Brooks and Gillespie managed to pull off moments of breath-taking technical prowess, especially in the second half of the show. In these moments, my favourite of which was the recreation of a cinema hall onstage, Brooks and Gillespie adeptly deployed stunning transformations of lighting and sound that produced incredibly rich environments that amplified the action onstage, all within an instant.
All this would have gone to waste had the cast not been up to the challenge. However, they did not disappoint. Actors expertly melded in and out of action, and special merit should be given to those playing horses, who at a moment’s notice dropped in to create crowds and dispersed just as quickly. The ultimate effect of these three prongs (direction, tech and acting) was tremendous: energy was effortlessly transferred from scene to scene, and layer upon narrative layer unfolded with surreal ease on stage.
At the core of this slick production were stellar performances from leads Jared Liebmiller (playing Alan) and Gareth Owen (playing Dysart). Liebmiller avoided the tempting trap of overplaying Alan’s developmental disabilities, and instead gave a performance of considerable range and nuance. He managed, within a well-varied palate of jerky, cagey, obnoxiousness, to find the briefest moments of joy and even something resembling peace in his performance. Furthermore, he was able to brilliantly portray Alan’s gradually increasing vulnerability as layer after layer of his story were peeled away, until the very core of his psyche was revealed at the end of the play.
Owen delivered an equally powerful performance as Dysart. Although he briefly struggled with audibility at the start of both halves, he quickly recovered, and walked the tightrope that is that role with considerable mastery. Not only was he able to skilfully manage the difficult responsibility of being both a character in the midst of the action and a remote narrator moving the story forward from the sides, but he also balanced the powerful contradictions that define his character. With a strong command over both the detective-like dispassion – clinically gathering evidence and prising out confessions – and the acute sense of anguish over the value of what is ‘normal’, Owen delivered a complex performance that few will be able to forget.
There were two slight blemishes on an otherwise flawless performance. Alongside Owen, Tasnim Saddiqa Amin (playing Hesther Salomon) too struggled with audibility early on, however she was not able to recover and thus left me straining to hear what she was saying. Secondly, even though the production was well paced, the uneven separation of halves did mean that at moments, the first half felt like it went on a little too long.
These, however, are minor issues, and the cast and crew deserve great credit for their efforts. The spirit of Equus that lurks in the depths of this play is a powerful, primal, and terrifying force. He is not just a thing of stories, but one of dreams and nightmares. Gillespie’s slick, minimalist production and the skilled performances of all those involved help bring out this beast in all of his raw, unforgiving brutality.